How to Avoid Reading the Bible Like a Scholastic


I recently had a conversation with someone about my ongoing series Reforming Calvinism in which I am attempting to correct some of what I consider to be fundamental problems with the five points of Calvinism while still retaining their deepest insights. While he finds what I have been writing to be interesting, he remarked that he wants to suspend judgment about the merits of my proposal until he is able to evaluate it as a whole in order to assess its coherency. For him, one of the foremost advantages of the traditional Calvinist scheme is that it is logically airtight; all of its components fit seamlessly into a cogent, rational account of human salvation. Thus, he is waiting to see if my revision will evidence the same kind of inner cohesion before he accepts is as a superior interpretation.

On the one hand, I am very sympathetic. The five points of Calvinism, traditionally conceived, do offer a system whose internal logic appears impeccable. It only makes sense that a valid interpretation of the biblical witness should not be self-contradictory. On the other hand, however, I am concerned about the rationale that is ultimately driving his thinking. I want to suggest that what is often taken for granted as ‘logical’ or ‘rational’ does not derive from Scripture itself but is actually an a priori construct superimposed onto Scripture which then becomes the overarching framework that determinatively impacts our interpretation.

This, I think, holds true when it comes to classical Calvinist soteriology, especially when we consider the ways in which our notions of ‘logical’ and ‘rational’ (and thus what we think Scripture simply teaches at face value) have been decisively influenced by the scholasticism of post-Reformation Reformed orthodoxy. As Reformed historian par excellence Richard Muller argues: “[t]he contemporary relevance of Protestant orthodox theology arises from the fact that it remains the basis for normative Protestant theology in the present.”[1] In other words, whether we realize it or not, our way of reading Scripture and theologizing has been deeply conditioned, if not fundamentally determined, by the influence of Protestant scholasticism. But what is Protestant scholasticism, and it what ways does it continue to influence us?

According to Muller, Protestant scholasticism refers to the period of theological development that followed the period of the Reformation within the “academic culture of Europe from the twelfth to the seventeenth and even eighteenth century” as “a child of the Renaissance as well as a child of the Middle Ages”[2]. According to Muller, Protestant scholastic theology was born from the need, following the Reformation, to codify and formulate the teaching of the Reformers into a coherent system adequate both to the needs of the university as well as to the challenges posed by the well-developed scholastic systems of Roman Catholicism. Reformed scholastics thus sought to set forth a systematic body of Reformed theology by appropriating methodological and philosophical tools from other sources such as medieval scholasticism and humanism. Although they endeavoured to maintain continuity with the theology of the Reformers, their efforts ultimately led to a certain amount of discontinuity between themselves and their Protestant forebears. Muller describes this process as follows:

[T]he literary genre of [the Protestant orthodox] scholastic system is significantly different from the literary genre of the early Reformation system. The intention of system is now the orderly and logical exposition of all loci—and although methodus or way through these loci draws on earlier paradigms, their exposition is substantially different. This transition, of course, was gradual: the discursive forms of Calvin and Bullinger yield to the quaestio of Ursinus and the vast topical treatises of Zanchi. These in turn are modified by an increasingly propositional and logical structure in the era of Ramism. Finally, this is recast into the form of a theoretical-practical, didactic-polemic system that treats each doctrine from all four of these perspectives. We are dealing, in short, with the development of a Protestant scholastic method.[3]

In contrast with the Reformers, the Reformed scholastic method of systematizing the various loci or doctrinal topics into an “orderly”, “increasingly propositional and logical structure” was characteristic of post-Reformation Reformed theology, and it was this kind of internally coherent scheme that came to be expected as one of the constitutive elements of a viable theological system. This, I would suggest, is one of the primary reasons for which we still feel the need today for our doctrinal constructs to be logically airtight and internally consistent. Whereas the biblical writers seem to be somewhat content with paradox and tension, the lingering influence of Protestant scholasticism leaves us very uncomfortable with any set of theological propositions or concepts that do not seem to rationally cohere in a neat manner.

Another way in which Protestant scholasticism continues to impact our theology consists, as Muller describes, in “its Aristotelian philosophical underpinnings”.[4] Especially relevant to a discussion of classical Calvinism is the Aristotelian concept of causality that provided to the Reformed scholastics a framework for delineating divine-human relations in salvation. Again Muller is helpful:

The delineation of first, formal, material, and final causes manifests an essentially Aristotelian perspective and represents one of the ways in which the rise of a scholastic method among Protestants had an effect on the patterns, divisions and definitions within theological system. Nevertheless, we cannot count this development as a sign of radical discontinuity in viewpoint between the orthodox and the Reformers. It represents a difference in degree rather than in kind, insofar as the Reformers themselves thought of problems of cause and effect in Aristotelian terms—as, for example, in Calvin’s discussion of predestination. The Reformers simply did not use the model of the fourfold causality as frequently, nor did they apply it to as many issues or problems. For the orthodox, both Reformed and Lutheran, the fourfold causality becomes a model for structuring discussion.[5]

What Muller articulates here underscores my aforementioned concern with requiring that a biblical interpretation or a theological position, such as what I am articulating in Reforming Calvinism, submit itself to and pass a test of ‘logic’ and ‘rationality’ before gaining acceptance. First, such an expectation of ‘logic’ and ‘rationality’ is deeply indebted not to Scripture (which, as I just noted, contains many elements which seem to stand in tension or in paradox with each other) so much as to our scholastic heritage. (As an aside, I find it ironic that Calvinists who demand such logical coherency are themselves at odds with Calvin himself, for, as many scholars have noted, a number of tensions exist in Calvin’s own writings that he apparently did not think it necessary to resolve. This was likely due to the fact that Calvin was more a ‘confessional’ theologian serving the church than he was a ‘scholastic’ theologian seeking to satisfy the requirements of the academy.) This is not to say that a theological position can be self-contradictory, as though modal logic of any kind should be jettisoned. Rather, it is to say that the kind of airtight logical coherency demanded by proponents of classic Calvinist soteriology when evaluating alternative views is artificial rather than biblical, likely owing more to scholastic history than to inspired Scripture.

Second, my concern also stems from the fact that the very ‘logic’ and ‘rationality’ according to which a theological view should be measured is called into question when understood in light of the Aristotelian philosophical commitments that define what is ‘logical’ and ‘rational’. Although the mere fact that scholastic methodology and Aristotelian philosophy largely define these terms does not necessarily invalidate their meaning, it does raise serious doubts as to their conformity to the inner ‘logic’ and ‘rationality’ of biblical revelation. In my view, the fundamental problem is that Aristotelian philosophy (even in its modified Christian form evidenced in Reformed theology), with its notion of causality, is a framework that is foreign to Scripture, and thus when it becomes the primary lens through which doctrines such as predestination are formulated, it can lead to serious errors or distortions. This is why Reformed theologian T.F. Torrance argues that

We [must] replace an abstractive and objectifying approach to knowledge [such as that of the scholastics] by another, in which we seek to apprehend some reality or field of reality strictly in accordance with its primordial nature and integrity, i.e., under the impact of its inherent power to manifest itself as it really is and in terms of its own inherent logos or intelligibility. . . . This means that if we seek to know things in accordance with their own interior principles and powers of signification, instead of clamping extraneous and distorting thought-forms down upon them, we develop objective forms of thought correlated with the ultimate openness of being and its semantic reference beyond itself.

Now when we allow objective being to reveal itself to us like that out of its own inner logos or intelligibility, our thought is thrust up against its reality, its truth of being, in such a way that it is sustained by an objective signification beyond itself and does not fall back into the emptiness of its own inventive, objectifying operations. Not only do we grasp the truth of intelligible being out of its own depth, but we let it interpret itself to us as we develop appropriate structures of thought under its impact upon us, i.e., as we respond to its own power of signification, which bears upon our minds with categorical force.[6]

What Torrance says here is of utmost importance. If we desire to come to know something correctly as it really is in itself, we cannot superimpose onto it a pre-existing framework through which we seek to know it. Rather, we have to approach the object of our inquiry in strict accordance with its own nature, allowing said object to determine not only the content but also the form of our knowledge and the method that we use to acquire it. Thus, for example, I cannot seek to know my wife in the same way that I try to learn how to use a new computer. To adopt an a priori approach that presupposes a particular ‘logic’ with respect to either one will result in distorted knowledge if that logic does not conform to the nature, or the inner ‘rationality’ of each one. Stated somewhat crudely, my wife does not have a manual, and my computer is not a complex individual with emotional, physical, psychological, and spiritual needs. I must therefore seek to know and relate to both in strict accordance with their unique natures.

If this is true vis-à-vis material and created objects, how much more is it true in relation to the Triune God who cannot be known except in terms of his own self-revelation! The knowledge of God and of his ways and works is utterly unique and cannot be obtained through methodological or philosophical constructs that derive from other sources without distortion or contamination. Rather, as Torrance contends:

[W]e are called to think of and to know him, not from a center in ourselves, but from a center in God, in such a way that it cuts across the grain of our natural desires and mental habits and creatively reorients them. In it we have to do with the eloquent and dynamic Being of God himself, whom we may know only in accordance with the steps he has taken in revealing himself to us and the steps he has taken in reconciling us to himself, through the incarnation of his Son within the ontological structures of our human existence in this world, in such a way that he sets up within it the laws of his own internal relations and our rational understanding takes on the imprint of what it is given to know, the triune Reality of God himself. To know this God, who both condescends to share all that we are and makes us share in all that he is in Jesus Christ, is to be lifted up in his Spirit to share in God’s own self-knowing and self-loving until we are enabled to apprehend him in some real measure in himself beyond anything that we are capable of in ourselves. It is to be lifted out of ourselves, as it were, into God, until we know him and love him and enjoy him in his eternal Reality as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in such a way that the Trinity enters into the fundamental fabric of our thinking of him and constitutes the basic grammar of our worship and knowledge of the One God.[7]

This is the fundamental point to which this entire post has been driving. If we are to know God truly, to interpret his Word correctly, and to theologize about him rightly, then we cannot do so by requiring him or his Word to conform to patterns of ‘logic’ and ‘rationality’ that derive from sources other than his own Triune self-revelation in Christ. It is God himself in his own Triune nature and being that, as Torrance states, “constitutes the basic grammar” of our knowledge of him and of his ways and works.

Therefore, the ultimate standard by which we must assess the merits of any biblical interpretation or theological view is not the form of logical consistency determined years ago by Reformed scholastics in keeping with their modified Aristotelian presuppositions; it is rather the inner rationality of God’s own Logos, the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us as Jesus Christ. As Jesus himself declared, all Scripture bears witness to him (John 5:39), and thus he alone is the litmus test to which our reading of Scripture must be continuously subjected. Only by deeply abiding in his Word and by relentlessly questioning not only the content but also the underlying structures that shape our knowledge of God will be able to bring what we consider to be ‘logical’ and ‘rational’ into greater conformity with the inner reality of his own Triune nature and self-revelation. Only by examining our biblical interpretation to ensure that it coheres with the inner logic of God’s own incarnate Logos rather than with any other methodological or philosophical rationality will we be able to truly know him as he is in himself. Unfortunately, as is usually the case with classic Calvinism (or even Arminianism for that matter), it is often the scholastic definition of logical consistency which is presupposed, and when we are unaware that we are indeed presupposing it, we think that all we are doing is simply reading ‘the plain teaching of Scripture’ when we are actually beholden to a construct alien to Scripture.

Therefore, if we desire to not read the Bible like a scholastic, then we must take care that we do not require it to conform to our own definition of what is ‘logical’ and ‘rational’, but we must repentantly allow God’s own self-revelation in Christ to demolish these concepts and put in their place the logic and rationality that accords with his own Triune nature as the fundamental grammar with which we formulate our theology.


Special thanks to Bobby Grow for inspiring this post.

[1] Muller, R.A., 2003. Post-Reformation reformed dogmatics: the rise and development of reformed orthodoxy;  volume 1: prolegomena to theology 2nd ed., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. p.29

[2] Ibid., pp.35-36

[3] Ibid.,pp.188-189

[4] Ibid., p.196

[5] Ibid., p.238

[6] Torrance, T.F., 1980. The ground and grammar of theology, Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia. p.96-97

[7] Ibid., p.155


6 thoughts on “How to Avoid Reading the Bible Like a Scholastic

  1. Matt B 11 August 2016 / 04:45

    So in the most basic of laymens tems what I read was – All of Scripture or the summation of the totality of scripture is Christ. Meaning everything we read in scripture, other than future prophetic works such as revelation, all point to, show qualities of, show the person of or display Christ. Did I follow correctly? Just trying to reduce it doen to its simplest form. Love your blog by the way! Keep on keepibg on brother!!


    • Jonathan Kleis 11 August 2016 / 07:25

      Hi Matt, thanks for commenting! I’m glad that you are finding these things helpful. In response to what you’ve said here, I would say that you are definitely on the right track. Seeing Christ as the center and point of all Scripture (including Revelation as well!) is a major and indispensable step in the right direction. What I am saying in this post, however, goes even further. Not only do we want to see Christ as the point of all Scripture (i.e. we interpret everything that it says as referring primarily to Jesus himself not only in the New Testament but also in the Old), but we also want to learn how to think and reason in a way that is determined by the way that God has revealed himself in Christ.

      Let me try and give an example of what I mean. I’ll use an example of something that I have been talking about recently here on the blog. When we read in John 14 that Jesus said to his disciples: “Whoever sees me has seen the Father.” Now this is a fundamental truth about how God has revealed himself in Christ. How so? It tells us, very simply, that when we look at Jesus, we see what God is like in himself. When we read the gospels and listen to Jesus’ words and see him perform his miracles and, ultimately, see him die on the cross and rise fir the dead, we see exactly what God is like. We see his love for us, his compassion, his mercy, etc.

      Now if we think a bit more deeply about what this means, we come to realize something very important, namely that if we interpret anything else in the Bible in a way that contradicts this central truth that comes from God’s self-revelation in Christ, then we can know that it is a wrong interpretation. So, for example, classic Calvinists believe that although Christ’s death has infinite value and is sufficient to save all people, they interpret many passages to say that the Father actually willed something different. They interpret passages that speak of Jesus’ death for the ‘world’ and for ‘all’ as though they refer only to a limited group of people, the elect.

      But the problem with this interpretation is that it violates our fundamental principle, that Jesus fully reveals the Father. How so? Because it basically says that what we see in Jesus (that he died on the cross so that all could be saved) doesn’t actually show us what God’s eternal will is. In fact, they basically say that what God decreed before creation concerning the atonement – that it would ultimately be limited to a smaller group of predetermined human beings – is different than what we see in Jesus! On the cross, we see that Jesus died in a sufficient way for all people, but somewhere back in eternity, the Father decided that his death wouldn’t actually save all people.

      So do you see how this contradicts our fundamental truth that Jesus fully reveals who the Father is from all eternity? If Jesus truly reveals to us the Father, then there is no way that hat the Father willed before creation is different than what Jesus actually did in history! Therefore, I would say that the classic Calvinist version of limited atonement is based on bad interpretation, not because it doesn’t see Scripture as pointing to Christ (for in many ways it does), but because it doesn’t think about what Scripture teaches in a way that conforms to how God has revealed himself in Christ. It interprets Scripture as though there is a God that is hidden behind Jesus, as though the God that we see in Jesus is in some way different than who God is in eternity. Does this make sense?

      So this is the main point that I am getting at. This is only one example, but this is the kind of approach to reading the Bible that we need to adopt. We need to understand the basic truths about how God has revealed himself in Christ (such as Jesus fully reveals the Father in a way that nothing about the Father’s will and action contradict what we see in Jesus), and then we need to interpret the rest of Scripture using those truths as guidelines to help us know which interpretations are wrong and which is right. I hope this helps!


      • Matt B 11 August 2016 / 07:50

        Jonathan, thank you for it surely does!! Thanks for taking the time to respond! God bless!!! Matt B.

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